What is it about a piece of writing that keeps you glued to the pages? Is it just one particular writing element that does the job, or is it more than one? I’m currently reading a mystery thriller series by Jeff Carson. It’s the David Wolf series. If you haven’t checked out these books, I highly recommend them. In less than a week I’ve finished the first five books and am on book six right now. What is it that keeps me reading them?
- Characters–The characters are unique and lifelike. Each of them have their own set of problems, likes/dislikes, habits and quirks, etc. You don’t end up liking or disliking them because you’re supposed to. You do that because these characters are very three dimensional. They jump off the page. They are real. You want to be ‘around’ them.
- Description–The setting is richly described and also jumps off the page. The reader is able to see the environment and be a part of the story. The author does this though without being too descriptive. It doesn’t take away from the story. If you read these books, you’ll find that the descriptions add to the story and provides clues.
- The Story–YES, the story itself is extremely compelling. You’re eyes/brain will be glued to the pages. The cause and effect of the plot structure is expertly done. Everything happens for a reason, whether you the reader thinks so or not.
So, you see, drawing a reader into your story is done with various tools, not just one. But, essentially, how you do that is up to you. After all, it’s your story.
(Please enjoy the first chapter of my novel)
Tora drove straight through from Norfolk, Virginia where she lived. This trip was temporary. Quick in quick out. She would go through everything in her parents’ house, pitch and toss, fix what needed to be fixed and sell the place. Then, it would be back to Virginia. Michigan was still a welcome sight though, to a certain extent. But there were still ghosts to deal with as well. She wanted to be back home but dreaded it at the same time. Without her parents, it wouldn’t be the same. Thoughts of her mother came flooding back. Nothing Tora achieved was ever good enough. There was always something more she wanted from her daughter. Her dad was different. Always loving, always interested in what Tora did. This difference in affection for Tora between her mother and father plagued her. Now she’ll never know. Damn, why did her parents have to die? Why then, why at that time? It’s as if her mother planned it that way. Oh, but that was ridiculous.
She pulled into the driveway of her parents’ house. The two and a half story stood untouched. This house Tora once shared with her parents stood in silence in the afternoon sun. Facing east the house cast its shadows forward, lurking, as the sun pushed itself from the backyard. Tora parked her car near the front, stepped out and took in the fresh air. No breeze. Usually she enjoyed the late afternoon glow of the sun passing through the trees. Today was different. But why? she couldn’t shaker her unease.
Shrubs flanked either side of the front of the door and along the whole front of the house. The bird house Tora made when she was eight still hung from the large oak tree on the far end of the yard. The grass bragged a lush green today as usual. She strolled up the curved sidewalk taking in the fresh scent of June air and tried to smile. The house itself stood back from the road and was surrounded by woods. This and the peaceful landscape made for a relaxed atmosphere. She saw the gardens had been tended to. She would make to thank Mr. Lyons later. Now she needed to get settled.
Inside appeared to look the same, but the feel was all wrong. Whether it was the lack of her parents’ presence of something else entirely different she couldn’t tell. The arched entryway closed in around her. Suspicious, Tora walked through the large entry hall. This grand room that glowed any other time was dull now. The smoky rose carpet now dull. The silver trimmed staircase so grand before, so small now. She strolled into the living room and caressed the plush sofa cushion. The cuckoo clock whistled from the kitchen, startling her thoughts to that fateful day when she last saw her parents a year ago.
“What do you mean I was acting out?” asked Tora. “Acting out against what?”
“You know, back then you were only sixteen and didn’t really know how to show your feelings,” said Tora’s mother. “Your father and I were having some problems, and you decided to show us how you felt by acting out.”
Tora was dumbfounded and unable to believe what she was hearing. She felt like a teenager all over again even now at the age of thirty. Her mother wasn’t even listening to a word she said. But she had to make her understand, now that she fully understood that whole situation herself for the first time since it happened.
“Mom, you and dad were having problems?”
“Oh, now don’t act like you didn’t know.”
“No, I didn’t know. Look, that incident didn’t happen as a result of my acting out against you and dad. It happened because I was too young and immature to know how to handle the situation.”
“Tora, you were sitting at the picnic table with a glass of wine. You should have known not to drink it. You knew better, or at least I thought you did.”
“Yes, I did know, but I…”
“You see? You did it out of spite.”
“I didn’t say that. If you’ll listen to what I have to say.”
“Alright, go ahead. I’m listening.”
At that moment her father, Thomas Jasper, stuck his head inside the back door. “Hey, Kath. Come on. We have some figuring to do.”
“Wait a minute. I’m coming,” said Tora’s mother, a hint of irritation in her voice.
“He got that bottle of wine for me. At the time I knew I wasn’t supposed to drink, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t, plus I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I was sixteen and faced with a situation I didn’t know how to handle. Then, when you drove up to the campsite, I was hoping you would tell me to get in the car. At least then I wouldn’t have had to deal with the situation.”
“Oh please, Tora. You would have pitched a fit if I had told you to get in the car.”
“Didn’t you hear anything I said? Damn it, mom, it has been almost fourteen years and you still blame me for something I had no control over and didn’t know how to handle.”
There was so much her mother misunderstood about that whole thing. All Tora wanted was for her to really pay attention. She still felt her mother blamed her for what happened that day. What mother daughter closeness they did have, which wasn’t much, declined since then. Her trust in Tora was gone.
“You did have control over it, but you chose not to. Look, your father and I have to go. We’ll be late.”
“Mom, all I want is for you to listen, really listen, to what I have to say because you never really do. Instead, you take what you want to hear and twist it around to suit your purposes, and you’re using this incident in the campground as an excuse to further push me away. Our relationship has always been strained like this. Do you hate me? Dad doesn’t treat me this way. He listens to what I have to say. He knows me much better than you do.”
A fleeting hint of a flinch in her eyes told Tora that she had struck a nerve this time.
Tora pressed on. “Why is that mother? Why is it that dad shows more affection than you do? Did you not want me when I was born?”
Her mother’s haunted eyes gazed out the kitchen window, so Tora know she’d struck a nerve. But it didn’t last long.
Her mother gathered her composure, took in a deep breath and blew it out slow. Finally, looking back at Tora she said, “Of course I… You have no idea what… We’ll finish this later, Tora. You father and I have to go.”
“But I’m not finished…”
“Oh, yes you are, young lady. Drop it. I said we’d talk later.”
“But…” But she left out the door before Tora could get another word in.
“Tora?” Her father entered the kitchen from the back door. He stepped in front of her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “After your mother and I finish dinner, there is something I must do for you.” A smile played across his face and a twinkle sparkled in his eyes.
“What is it ? Does it have to do with the figuring you told mom about?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. Don’t be so impatient.”
“Dad, you don’t have to do anything for me.”
“Yes, I do.” With that, he gave her a kiss on the forehead then said, “See you beyond today.” Then he hurried out the door.
Tora rushed after him asking what he meant by that, but all he did was wave to her over his shoulder.
That was a year ago today, the day of their 30th wedding anniversary. That last statement made by her father puzzled her. To any other person it would mean ‘see you tomorrow.’ But her dad had a habit of being cryptic at times, so she knew better than to take what he said at face value.
After that she never saw her mother or her father alive again; all she saw were their dead corpses. Her mother always did have to have the last say in everything. But fate had other plans for them. The thought of reconciliation with her mother fell through her fingers like sand. There for a second and then trickling away only to be taken by the wind. The only chance to mend things with her was gone.
There were two things her mother always said to her. Both were equally puzzling. The first one was so random when her mother said it. She would pass by Tora and say, “Tick tock, Tora. Tick tock.” She asked her at one time why she kept saying it, but all her mother did was smile. Not a warm smile, but an, I got a secret, type of smile. Or was Tora reading too much into it?
The other thing her mother used to say was, “Get it right, Tora. Get it right.” This above all else, annoyed Tora. When she was in sixth grade and taking ballet classes, there was one step Tora couldn’t get. Then, finally she got it right and the dance instructor praised her telling her she did it with perfect precision. But her mother, who had been seated in the studio at the time said, “You forgot to smile, Tora. Get it right, Tora. Get it right.” It was like that with most of what Tora did. She loved her mother, but at the same time there remained an emptiness. Her mother was right about one thing; she never got anything right.
Whether it was her mother’s lack of affection toward her or something else entirely, Tora didn’t know. Sometimes she felt like an old pair of shoes one keeps around because they’re your husband’s favorite. At least she had had her father. He was there for her; teaching her to see the good in all things, to stand up for oneself, to do self-defense, and to hunt and fish. But she will never forget the bedtime stories. The stories were all part of a larger story. They all connected. Then one day they all stopped. Funny, when asked if he would continue, he said he didn’t know the ending; that they were passed down from his father who never finished them either. She also had asked him if he could make up his own ending, because it needed one. The answer was still no. When she asked why, all he said was “Someday you will.” At the time she didn’t think anything of that statement. Now, looking back on it, it was strange. It was a story. Tora smiled and felt blessed that he shared them with her. One day she would pass them on to her own child and come up with an ending.
She had to give her mother some credit though. Everything she learned about being a lady, she learned from her mother. How to sit up straight, dress right and present oneself with poise and elegance. Those were the fun times she did have with her. The luncheon invites and trips to Toronto to see Phantom of the Opera and things to that nature, were all part of it. At least, through all the nitpickiness, she cared enough to take the time to teach her something. At least she was able to get that right.
Tora, now standing in the kitchen, started to turn to head back to the living room but stopped short. Her father’s sunglasses sat on a shelf built into the wall above a side desk; an extension of the kitchen countertop. She smiled. He loved those sunglasses and never went anywhere without them. Not only that, he never let anyone else wear them. She giggled at how people get so serious about such simple things.
The ringing of her cellphone broke her thoughts.
“Hey there. When you due back into town?” asked Maggie.
Tora was glad to hear her best friend’s voice.
“Hi, Maggie. I arrived home and am taking everything in,” said Tora.
“Something wrong?” asked Maggie. “You sound different.”
“I’m fine, tired is all. Hey, why don’t you stop by? I’ll fix us something to eat and we can catch up,” said Tora.
“Sure. Be right there.”
Tora’s phone rang again, but the number was unfamiliar. She answered anyway, but no one was there. Dead air lingered on the other end. She clicked the phone off, and it rang again. Still, dead air. The good thing about cellphones was that they could always be turned off; as in this case.
She opened a few windows and flopped down on the couch. A lite breeze whisked her hair back; the scent of pine floated in. She swept her hands through her black hair and sighed. Her tan eyes grew heavy with lack of sleep from driving straight through from Virginia.
Her schedule would be busy during the coming weeks. the house needed to be gotten in order and her parents’ things needed to be gone through. But it could all wait until tomorrow. Tonight all she wanted to do was relax and catch up with her friend.
As if on cue, Maggie walked in letting the door slam behind her.
“Hey, Tora. It’s been way too long. How was your trip?”
“Have you thought of what you’re going to do?”
Tora notice a conspiratorial look on Maggie’s face. “Ok, Maggie, I’ll bite. What’s up your sleeve?”
“Well, I know you said your stay was only temporary, but there is a teaching opportunity at the high school I think you’d be suited for. I already talked to the principal Mr…”
“I appreciate the gesture but no thanks. Teaching is not the right career for me right now. There’s so much to think about. I need to go through this house and get rid of some things. It’s been a year since my parents’ death, and all that I was able to take care of were their finances. No, It’s best I come and do what I came to do and go.”
“You’ll have all summer to prepare your classroom and get ready for next year. That will leave you with plenty of time to go through the house. Besides, I’ll be here to help when I’m able to. You know that.” There was a pause as Tora considered this. “Give it a try. How do you know you won’t like it? The students are great, and the staff is very friendly.”
Tora let out a huge sigh. “Maggie, did you not hear what I said? I am not staying. There is nothing for me but…” She let her words die away.
“You can’t let what happened destroy you like this. At some point you must stop.”
“It’s not destroying me. You’re being dramatic. I don’t like being here. I mean, I do, and I don’t. There are too many bad memories, especially the bad ones.”
“So, you ran away instead.”
“No, I happen to live somewhere else.’
“Then live here instead. It really is very simple, Tora.”
Tora leaned back on the sofa, rested her elbow on the backrest, and started bighting her nails. How could she even entertain the idea of living here again. Her mother having still been angry with her, even after years had passed and never giving her a chance to make amends. Most importantly, her father getting killed while doing something for her. It was her fault they died, and if her mother was there right now, she would tell her that too. No, she couldn’t stay here. The memories remained way too heavy.
She then thought about he idea of having her own classroom again. She remembered her first year at Tawas High School seven years ago. She graduated from there, went to college and obtained her teaching degree in English, taught for one year at the same school, joined the army, and now she was being asked to go back. Life felt as if it had come full circle. A never-ending circle, always coming back here. Is this what her life amounted to? Maybe her mother was right. Maybe she didn’t have the motivation or the knowledge to really make something of herself.
“You look a million miles away,” said Maggie.
“I’m ok, I promise,” said Tora.
The phone rang. Tora jumped at the intrusion. She forgot about he house phone. The number on the caller ID was the same strange number on her cellphone from earlier. It rang again, her hand went for the receiver, then stopped. She froze not sure what to do. Her instincts said not to answer, but curiosity got the better of her. It rang a third time. Again, her hand went for the receiver, clasped around it and gingerly picked it up.
“Hello,” said Tora.
“Look, if you’re not going to say anything, then stop calling. I don’t…”
“Hello, Nadira. It’s your mother. It’s time.”
“You have the wrong number. There’s no Nadira here.”
“No, you are Nadira. This is your mother, and it is time.”
On (April 8, 2021) I posted a photo of a lightning storm and titled the post Atmospheric Emotion. In your writing you will need to convey emotions to your atmosphere/setting. This then creates a connection to your readers because they start to feel these emotions too. Typically, darkness or a dark room conveys foreboding or unease. A warm setting with trees, green grass, a cozy cabin with a small pond depicts serenity. But what if you want that calm serene scene to depict foreboding without the darkness? What can you insert into that scene to create that foreboding? Perhaps it’s too calm. Maybe the friend of yours who lives there is no where to be found. Her belongings and car are there, but she is not. Her cellphone is sitting on the patio table, so calling her won’t do any good. Or, perhaps he/she was there a minute ago and now he/she is not. He/she vanished in the midst of this calm setting.
When it comes to emotions and projecting them onto a setting, you must go beyond narration. Just telling your reader the back yard was creepy or gave your main character a creepy feeling or a sense of foreboding, is not enough. They must FEEL that sense. These emotional projections from a story to its reader(s) is part of what makes for a great book/story.
I hadn’t been in my friend, Elliot’s, basement before. Elliot had always been so upbeat all the time; full of jokes. But the black walls and purple lights were the opposite of my friend’s personality, so it was creepy.
I hadn’t been in my friend, Elliot’s, basement before. I never understood why until now. In the past Elliot’s upbeat demeanor magnetized others. People drew to him. So, my breath caught in my chest, when I reached the bottom of his basement steps and flicked on the light. A deep purple glow radiated throughout the room in front of me. The color of the walls appeared to be black, but the purple light made it impossible to tell. A kind of mist seeped through a few cracks in the walls. It hit my nostrils and a dank stench reached my stomach, giving me the dry heaves. Peering to the left, a cot stood in the far corner. Was it my imagination, or was there an indentation of a body on the one and a half inch mattress? I inched that way to take a closer look. I came within five feet, and the indentation moved. No body was visible…..
I took my tea, opened the sliding glass door and stepped onto the back deck. The grass had been freshly mowed the day before and the flower gardens weeded. A well kept yard makes for a relaxing mood. I spotted the lounge chair to my right, walked over to it, and sat down.
I lifted my tea to my nose and inhaled the ginger fragrance, causing me to smile at the sweet scent. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shown through the sliding glass door. I opened it and stepped out onto the back deck. A warm breeze whispered by and pushed my shoulder length hair back as I took in the freshly cut lawn and sweet scented flowers. Standing there taking in all of the beauty reminded of a mental massage of sorts. I stepped over to the cushioned lounge chair and sunk in, closing my eyes and relishing the clapping of the leaves on the trees as the breeze moved them.
In Example 1 the bad sample tells us that the character feels creepy, but do you the reader feel it? In don’t. We get that the main character feels creepy, but WE don’t feel as creeped out as he/she does. We don’t even believe he/she feels creeped out because the seriousness of the situation doesn’t come across.
In the good sample of Example 1 we feel the main character’s emotions of fear and apprehension, and we feel his disbelief of a friend who is normally upbeat but has a basement that’s dark and dreary. We are as creeped out as he/she is.
In Example 2 the bad sample is rather mundane and stale. We understand the environment is relaxed in nature but it doesn’t come across in the writing. The environment doesn’t evoke emotion at all.
However, the good sample of Example 2 conveys the imagery needed to evoke the relaxed and warm atmosphere to the reader. We can actually identify with this because most of us have experienced this type of relaxation. But, it wasn’t told to us as in the bad sample. It was SHOWN to us. Did you feel relaxed? I did.
Overall, emotions play a huge role in any story, especially when it comes to atmosphere/setting. They draw your readers into the text and keep them there. That’s where you want them, and you want them there to stay.
Research is a wonderful thing. Time consuming? Yes, absolutely. In the end it enriches your story because it brings believability to the reading experience. If you don’t want to do the research, then don’t include that researchable element in your story. I say this because readers know when you’re winging it. This is so true when it comes to including information about other cultures in your story. Maybe another culture is essential to the plot. I know what you must be thinking. We all know this already. Well, yes. But some will still skip the research. Does researching mean you have to read everything and take extensive notes? No. Here are some ways you can conduct your research and have fun at the same time.
- Read/take notes
- Watch a documentary/take notes
- Interview/record it/and/or take notes
- Take a trip to that place: Israel, Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Germany. Whatever place your story incudes.
- Pictures: for visual description if you aren’t able to go there.
- Print out your material to use it later if you need it again.
I enjoy researching because I love to learn. Sometimes I take too much time with it, and it ends up taking away from my writing time. This is okay. Just think about how much richer your story will be for having done all that work.
Story setting is essential. It’s one of the elements that pulls readers into the story and places them there. Can you imagine what reading a story would be like if there wasn’t any description of the places in it? Flat, that’s what it would be….flat. I would cast it aside in a heartbeat.
How do we paint a picture of what we want our readers to see when they read your story? It really is up to the writer. I say this because we’re all different and have our own ways of doing things. So, take what you will from this post and make it yours. I like to create my settings in such a way, so that when someone reads it, it sounds natural. What I don’t want is for the action/story to stop so that I can describe something. Doing that takes away from the story. Note the two examples below.
Example 1: Laural stepped into the room with her bare feel. The room was white with plush carpet. White curtains hung on the windows and blew in the breeze. To the right of the window sat a small square table with bright green rose. In spite of the brightness of the room, she should have felt comforted, but no. There was a eeriness that made her feel uneasy. A lock of her blond hair fell forward and she moved to push it back. She stopped midway as she felt his finger along her cheek.
Example 2: Laural stepped into the white room. Now barefoot, she stepped onto the plush, white carpet. At one time this feeling would have comforted her, but today the cushion of the carpet only served to increase that eerie sensation twisting in her gut. White curtains billowed as the breeze from the open window whispered into the room. Again, a false sense of comfort played in her gut. It were as though the room was dark, not light. The only color in the room came from a plant sitting on a small square end table to the right of the open window. A single black rose stood dead center of a plant whose bright green heart shaped leaves came to thin tips. His calling card. A lock of blond hair pushed forward over her right shoulder. Moving her hand up to push it out of the way, she froze midway as his finger caressed her cheek. Her breath caught in her chest. She wanted to run, but her legs wouldn’t move.
“You look pale, my sweet,” he said.
In the first example the setting description does nothing to move the story along and it doesn’t create any kind of feeling either. We are told that Laural is feeling uneasy, but the description doesn’t heighten this feeling at all.
The second example combines description of the room with how Laural is feeling, which in turn goes along with the story.
When you’re writing, and get stuck on how to describe something, sit back and relax. Close your eyes and picture your setting or situation. Then, when you’re ready, describe it simply. When you’re done with that, embellish it to fit the story/scene. It takes practice.
When I was in the U.S. Navy Reserves back in 2005, I did my annual training on the USS Bohomme Richard LHD 6. At that time smart phones weren’t really a thing yet. A lot of my friends including myself had the flip phone and there was no camera on it. So, when I went on this AT, the ship sailed from San Diego, CA to Seattle WA. Since I didn’t have a camera on my cell phone, I had to take with me a couple of disposable cameras. Well, I really wish I had taken more of those cameras because I ended up running out of film. Here I was sitting on a park bench looking out over the bay in Seattle watching cruise ships and viewing the vast and majestic Mt. Rainier feeling the light breeze and enjoying a rare blue sky and sunshiny day, and I had no camera to capture it all. What did I do? I took my journal out and painted my own picture of it with words.
Think outside the box here. Do this your way. Free write this description and get down any and all words you can that describes everything you see and go back later and cut and change what you don’t want. On the other hand, you can slow down, breathe, enjoy the fresh salty air floating up off the water being carried by the breeze. Close your eyes, listen to the sounds, smell the scents and then take out your journal and pen/pencil and ‘paint’ your picture(s). You will be surprised at what your brain comes up with. These two methods are what works for me, but I much prefer the latter.
Keep this and all writings you have because they can be used later in a short story or a novel or two. Doing this also allows you to see how you’ve grown in your writing as time goes by. I recently went back to one of my journals in which I ‘took a picture with words’ and reread it. It was from a vacation I took with my husband and kids in 1997. As I was reading it my mind began making some mental changes to what I wrote that would make it better. My thought here? OMG I can use this in my next book. Oh the discovery of it all. Writing is truly fun.